Friday, 23 October 2009

Funeral directors overstep the mark?

I’ve had a bit of a narrow escape : I’m doing a funeral today and went to see the family three days ago. As I was leaving the house, something they said suggested that they had requested that “the curtain should not be closed”. I checked, and it was true. The funeral director had not passed on this important bit of information, and they had not specifically asked me. It sort of slipped out by accident. Partly for reasons I give below, it hadn’t occurred to me to ask. So we could have had a situation where they suddenly found themselves, at the most sensitive point of the service, facing a closing curtain they didn’t expect. I was not happy, and have raised it with the funeral director concerned. It has made me think a little bit harder about what’s going on here and thought I ought to share it.

I’d be interested to know whether you agree with me, and if so, whether any collective response is appropriate.

I suggested to the funeral director that rather than putting the idea of leaving out the Committal into people’s heads they should leave it to the family themselves to suggest it - at least, as long as it is a Christian funeral to be conducted by me as a Christian minister. The response was that ‘some families prefer it’. Choice is everything . . .

As far as I am aware, there is no Christian funeral liturgy or service that misses out the Committal : I feel the funeral directors are overstepping their boundary in deciding what the content of a Christian service should be. The funeral director was under the impression that ‘the Committal’ was the name given to ‘the whole service’; I think that ‘the Committal’ is that bit of the service (around which the whole thing revolves psychologically) which starts with the words “Therefore . . we commit his/her body to . . etc.” and is followed by the lowering of the coffin or the closing of the curtain.

To me, the ‘we’ in that sentence is important : this is the Christian community, united in grief and supporting one another, ‘handing over’ a loved one to God - together. Leave the Committal out (as I will have to do this afternoon, I guess) and you’re left with individuals ‘walking out on’ the deceased; although I shall suggest that they each take the time to stand before the coffin, acknowledge the deceased and make their own private act of ‘letting go’ in their hearts before leaving. In other words, it will become an individualistic thing. But still not a committal - the committal is more than a thought process. It’s a physical act.
When I used to conduct West Indian burials in London, the family would all help to fill in the grave then and there. I’m fairly sure that as part of a Hindu funeral a couple of men are deputed to accompany the body through the entire cremation process - no leaving it behind a curtain on the catafalque. Not closing the curtain is equivalent to leaving the coffin on the ground beside the grave.

Take out an act of committal of any sort and, it seems to me, you’re left not with a funeral service but a service of thanksgiving. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s not a funeral. In a funeral we stare death down in the light of faith. The curtain, for me, has particularly strong resonance - the lectionary is in Hebrews at the moment . . . The curtain in the Jerusalem Temple represented the material creation, but what was beyond it remained ‘most holy’ and obscure. The curtain represented the limit to our mortal vision, but also carried the promise of something more wonderful. It is very appropriate to be left staring at a curtain.
For myself I have said to the funeral director concerned that if they know they are going to ask me to conduct the funeral

> that they do not suggest to the family that they leave out the Committal, or offer it as a ‘choice’. It is my job, not the funeral director’s, to discuss with the family the content of a Christian funeral, and though I’m happy to accommodate their wishes, I would rather they made an informed decision.

> that if the family, on their own initiative, request it, then to be absolutely sure that this information is conveyed to me before I meet them so I can discuss it.

> that I would not feel it appropriate to suggest it to them myself because in my view Christian funerals include Committals (and I’ve been asked presumably to conduct a Christian funeral). Therefore if the funeral director does not pass on such a request and the family don’t mention it to me so that (in ignorance) I close the curtain and people are upset, I shall explain that the responsibility to communicate this rested with them and the funeral director because it is not normal Christian practice.

In all this, it is not my intention to be awkward, and if, after thinking it through with me, the family genuinely want to leave out the Committal then I have my ‘plan B’ as described above.

What I am uneasy about is funeral directors deciding what is and what isn’t a Christian funeral and then either presenting me with a fait accompli, or (worse) creating a situation where I unwittingly cause pastoral hurt.

It’s bad enough that they sell printed orders to people and are pressing me for the order of service before I’ve even had a chance to meet the family. It seems they want it both ways :

> they assume that the order of service is predetermined such that I can tell them what it is before consulting the family. (As a URC minister I can be a lot more flexible than that). But . .

> feel that they can offer the family (but not me) choice over whether to include an essential element of a Christian funeral.
What do you think?

Thursday, 1 October 2009

the Age of Stupid

Went with our Bible Study group last night to see 'Age of Stupid' last night at a village hall in Kidlington, north of Oxford. (See In a sense, there was little in the film that we didn't already know, but there were some memorable images : the old Alpine mountain guide taking a party of people down 150m of ladders on to a glacier that, in his youth, he used to step on to. The look of devastation on the face of the guy seeking planning application for a wind farm on an old bomber airfield, voted down 10 to 1 by councillors in the wake of local protest. The look of smug satisfaction on the faces of the protest organisers and - a truly memorable moment - the expression on the face of the lead campaigner when asked whether she was concerned about global warming. It was a fantastic combination of initial incomprehension, followed by a sort of hysterical desire to please the questioner with the answer he wanted (hysterical, because she realised that her actions betrayed the exact opposite). No actor could reproduce it.

The most telling observation, for me, was the reflection by Mark Lynas that whilst the human species seems well-wired to respond powerfully and imaginatively to immediate crises like attack or earthquake, it seems that we just don't have the mental collective capacity to respond to crises that have a thirty-year time lag. I have a nasty feeling that this is true. Maybe it's that mysterious thing that Paul called 'sin' : "the good thing I want to do I find I can't".

What surprised me most last night was the turn-out. A good three hundred people were there (including the local MP) : tickets had sold out days before.

Dec 5th is a mass demonstration in London ( See you there.